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Country Cool

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Hot licks from Nashville, Memphis, and beyond
by Gregg Shapiro

Like Loretta Lynn, Bettye LaVette, and Candi Staton—all divas with devoted followings in their respective genres—country queen Wanda Jackson has been given the revival treatment. For The Party Ain’t Over (Nonesuch), Jackson put herself in the hands of the ubiquitous Jack White. But unlike White’s earlier collaboration with country songbird Lynn, this disc lacks cohesion. Some of the cover tunes selected are more inspired than others. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the 73-year-old devoutly Christian singer wrap her mouth around Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” She tears into “Rip It Up” and storms through Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain.” But “Rum and Coca-Cola” isn’t as potent as it should be, and “Teach Me Tonight” is a lesson best avoided.

You can hear a bit of the influence of Wanda Jackson’s trademark growl on Screws Get Loose (Oh Wow Dang) by Those Darlins. As they sing in “Be Your Bro,” they may have “girly parts,” but they’ve got “boyish hearts.” Their matter-of-fact approach to a variety of subjects may differ from Jackson’s, but that’s what makes them so, well, darlin’. The title track about “going insane” is crazy appealing, and the aforementioned “Be Your Bro” is one of the funniest looks at male/female friendships on record. “Hives” will have you itching to sing along, “Mystic Mind” puts a psychedelic twist on psychics, and “$” is an interesting take on the love of money. Love ’em and leave ’em anthem “Boy” is followed by the delish “Fatty Needs a Fix.”

The Decemberists’ country-chamber opus The King Is Dead (Capitol) sounds like it could have just as likely been recorded in Nashville or Memphis as in Portland, Oregon. The presence of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, as well as R.E.M.’s Peter Buck—not to mention a prominent pedal steel guitar (or gee-tar) and fiddle—definitely supply the disc with a country accent. Standout tracks include “Calamity Song,” “Rise to Me,” the harmonica-heavy “Don’t Carry It All” and “Down by the Water,” “All Rise,” and “This Is Why We Fight.”

Personal troubles aside, Justin Townes Earle must be doing his father, Steve, proud. His best record to date, Harlem River Blues (Bloodshot) sounds like an instant classic. Timeless compositions such as “Workin’ for the MTA,” “Wanderin’,” “Move Over Mama,” “Learning to Cry,” and “Ain’t Waitin’” sound as if they could find an audience in both the alternative country and Grand Ole Opry communities. Additionally, with “Rogers Park” and “Christchurch Woman,” Earle reinforces himself as a 21st-century man. Speaking of Steve Earle, he’s back with I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (New West).

One of the more consistently fascinating insurgent country acts, the prolific Drive-By Truckers kick in with Go-Go Boots (ATO). Songs of murder and brutality, infidelity, ugly divorce, Jesus and other drugs, family and absent friends populate the disc. The exquisite “Dancin’ Ricky,” with vocals by Shonna Tucker, is particularly wondrous.

Easily the most successful of the new breed of Southern rockers, Kings of Leon achieved stardom with a pair of singles, “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody,” from their previous disc. So it’s easy to understand why the band, finding itself at a creative crossroads, might fumble a bit on the follow-up album, Come Around Sundown (RCA). Now a full-fledged stadium act, the Kings of Leon sound as if they are employing everything in their bag of tricks to fill the space. So if that’s not your bag, expect to be disappointed by much of this slick disc, including “Mary,” “The Face,” “The Immortals,” “No Money,” and “Pick Up Truck.” But you can seek refuge in less abrasive tracks such as “Back Down South” and “Beach Side.”

Like The Decemberists, Dolorean also hails from the fertile land of Oregon. The band sure makes “purty” music on their latest disc The Unfazed (Partisan). This is especially true of the title tune, “Country Clutter,” “Fool’s Gold Ring,” “If I Find Love,” and “How Is It.”

As if to remind us that country music wouldn’t be what it is today without Johnny Cash’s contributions, and that none of the above artists would have a leg to stand on without him, we have the second installment in the Johnny Cash “Bootleg” series, From Memphis to Hollywood (Columbia/Legend). The double-disc set draws on Cash’s personal archives and includes demos, rarities, radio performances, and more from the 1950s and ’60s.

 

Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.


 

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Gregg Shapiro

Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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